BIOMIMICRY

 

 

A recent study in Britain found that the average prisoner spends more time outside than the average child. I read that sometime within the past year or so and had the predictable reaction of concern for contemporary Western culture. All those yards and flowers and trees, all that sun, the rain puddles, the snow, the creatures—what a sad waste to miss out on play and learning in the physical world. Lost, in many cases, to the tyranny of screens. Then back-to-back, one client reported a SWAT team breaking in across the street, another mentioned gang threats in her mobile home neighborhood, and I remembered that there are many kids for whom the outdoors isn’t an option. A different kind of cultural problem, but also resulting in distance from nature, a lose-lose proposition. In cartoons and commercials and movies and memes, animals are consistently objectified. Plants are, too, in many cases. The leaf in the photo above, I saw on a walk this past weekend. It had fallen from one of the trees that clean and cool the air in my town—its veins, and the beads of rain on its surface, exemplars of beauty and biology, tutorials in physics. As a child, I heard about the death of languages, and how each dead or dying language represents a unique resource of wisdom, gone. Species death is similar. And what of clean water, clean air? An issue with incalculable loss is that we can’t conceive of it—but it happens anyway. It happens in estuaries and in living rooms alike. As within, so without, and vice versa. Contact is invaluable; attention matters.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names on this blog are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. In the midst of personal difficulty, I’m grateful for your reading. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS

 

I noticed right away the whiff of chemicals on his coat, but I didn’t want to embarrass or offend him, so I didn’t ask him to hang it up in the waiting room. I thought of him as shy and inward, in ways that might have had to do with poverty and tumult, and I didn’t want to drive him further down into any of that. I did mention lightly that I noticed something, and he told me it was diesel that had spilled on him. I opened the window, giving the excuse that I was warm, while keeping my sweater on. Did he catch that discrepancy of logic? If so, it wasn’t apparent. I liked him but didn’t know if I was reaching him in any helpful way. We sat in long silences together while he sorted out the tactile puzzles next to him. I asked him to name his feeling when he solved one, and encouraged him to notice sources of pride in his life. I told him he deserved to feel pride, and his eyebrows went up—his strongest reaction ever in session, I think. Not because of him, but for the sake of my breath that day, I was relieved when he left. He’d been sitting on a pillow that I knew would never air out; I would have to remove it. The day proceeded. I saw two more clients, then transferred my plants from the windowsill, where the morning sun through the glass is always too intense, to the little table where I sit with kids, and left for my evening job. The next morning when I unlocked my office, the diesel was still eye-burningly thick in the air, and my fluorescent pothos, formerly a glowing green, thick and exuberant with leaves, was at least half-dead—the wilted leaves brown and sickly slick. Pothos rate high among potted plants both for ease of growth and for their ability to clean indoor air; I felt as though this one had taken the hit for the other two plants in my office, and for me. I picked the dead parts off and discarded them, realizing only later that I should’ve photographed the whole plant first, to capture the devastation that had been wreaked, that evidence of ecosystem in action. Then I did what I had to do: I opened my window and sat at my desk to start notes. Absentmindedly I reached for my mug, forgetting that the water had sat overnight, and realized I was tasting diesel fumes that had settled there. I spit into the garbage, rinsed my mouth, washed the cup multiple times in the staff kitchen, rinsed my mouth again, drank filtered water. Every day for over a week, I came in to more dead leaves. At first dark like overripe bananas, then dwindling to jaundiced leaves with darker spots, like burn marks. The foliage sparser and sparser as I pruned and hoped for recovery. An acquaintance who heard about all this, after the fact, said, “Never sacrifice yourself that way again. Ask for the coat to come off.” Well, the boy didn’t wear the coat next time I saw him, which, given patterns of attendance in such an agency, wasn’t a mere seven days later. It got warmer. But meanwhile—just imagine—he’d been walking around like that, breathing that in.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. I’m deeply grateful for my readers, and as always, I’d love to reach more. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too, by linking to it in whatever way works for you. I typically post once a month, so no barrage.

PAPIER-MACHE, IN TWO PARTS

This story starts at my inner-city parochial school, where supplies were so sparse that at one point we were sharing a single box of construction paper amongst grades Pre-K through 8. I can still recall my pride upon being chosen by Mrs. Z to leave my 1st grade classroom and walk down the grand black-tiled hall to request the box from another teacher—head held high in my state of importance, I fervently hoped to be witnessed.

What my school lacked in resources, it made up for amply in spirit, thanks in no small part to the cultural influence of the Spanish-speaking families in our parish. The Sisters who ran things, all Caucasian, embraced those families and honored Our Lady of Guadalupe. Looking back from this distance, in a culturally hostile hour, I admire the welcome offered by administrators who would have first come to know the neighborhood when it was all Polish, before the sugar skulls of the Day of the Dead bedecked the shelves of the shabby nearby bakery. A local woman was brought in to teach us Spanish hymns. Most thrilling were the piñatas.

Preparing for an all-school festival, each class worked together at long tables in the basement, soaking strips of newspaper in gummy flour paste and laying them bubbled and buckling over balloons. Smoothed, dried, painted, and strung up in the school gym—a magical transformation—they bobbed as each member of each class, taking turns, got to leverage one blind-folded swing, until a spill of candy hit the floor.

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The story continues with Cybil, 14, who was hospitalized several times for suicidality before she came to the agency seeking services. I liked her instantly, which made it relatively easy to build the rapport that is crucial with any client, but perhaps especially with teens; she had a mordant wit and a sensitive heart, both of which provided points of connection. One evening early on she interrupted herself and looked up from her mandala, colored pencil poised, and asked, tremulously, “You know I’m not doing this for attention, right?” It was already clear she had heard that accusation many times before.

Thanks to Cybil’s engagement in session and commitment to her therapeutic homework, within several months, she had stopped cutting—then, later, purging. Much of our work, though, still lay ahead. Ahead, and below.

In ways beyond my ken, I’m sure the speculated hard inner core and molten outer core of the Earth make all life possible; but the hard inner core of pain and molten outer core of anger, beneath a crust of scars and mantle of “behaviors,” almost cost Cybil hers. She told me that it wasn’t so much that she didn’t want to talk about things, as that she didn’t know where to start.

Reception at the agency had a vestigial practice of printing visit slips, despite the transition to computerized record-keeping. Several clients were aware, when they turned them over to me, that I put them in a file marked “To Shred.” As she and her mother prepared to leave one night, Cybil handed me hers: “Oh, here, do you want this for your file?”

“Sure,” I replied, “unless you’d like to keep it for yours.”

“I’ll be able to wallpaper my room with them pretty soon.”

Her mother and I exchanged quick looks; she seemed to hear what I did. All that stigma, writ large in Cybil’s life. “Why wallpaper?” asked her mother. “How about papier-mâché?”

“Yes!”—I seized on that. “What about a piñata?” Cybil liked candy, and she deserved a celebration. Transformation for transformation. “You could fill it with sweet things and baubles!”

“I like that,” she said. Her mom agreed.

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A COUNTERVAILING MAGIC

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Last evening I was running some errands in town when the owner of a tiny used-and-antiquarian bookstore, bald in the style of a sea captain, flagged me down: he had a couple somethings I’d asked for months prior. So I went in, and settled into a narrow armchair, losing track of time until I realized that his open sign hadn’t been up, and I was likely keeping him from his tea.

He waved off my apology; he was staying late, as it happened. A young man would be bringing his girlfriend by, to guide her toward a certain book with a carved-out center containing—yes—a ring. Once said young man had proposed, the owner would clear a space for a small, well-appointed table, and a local restaurant would provide a catered meal. (I didn’t ask, but imagined a lone violinist there as well.)

Hearing that, surrounded by a warren of shelves all but obscuring the ancient blue wallpaper, with a peach-faced lovebird singing in the other room— “Alas, in a cage,” said the bookseller—was an instance of countervailing magic, the current that runs against the ills of the world. Such encounters—magic is always an encounter in some form or another—restore me to joy.

There is a great deal of pain involved in working with children. My first client, as an intern, was a little girl whose mother punched her in the nose and took an ax to her father’s car; she couldn’t concentrate in class and wept for the loss of an animal she’d loved, plus everything else, tears that shook her frame. We did a sensory inventory one day, and the wind spoke to her and told her to find her own safe place in the landscape at home; she let a pond remind her of peace, and the sun shining through a leafy trellis bring her hope. Magic: her dear, intelligent face, as we meditated at a picnic table, beneath the tall tall trees and a vibrant sky. May it carry her forth.

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WHEN EAST IS WEST

Angry Is Happier Than Sad

She was born addicted to methadone, and her mother kept using, then landed in jail. Her father had his own problems, but he got custody. Now she was a wild-eyed eight-year-old, whip-smart but lacking integration. This was to be our second visit, and I felt from our first meeting, it might turn into tangent upon tangent, attention scattered to the four winds. I wanted a glimpse of her heart.

So I asked her to show it to me, with an expressive art activity. You think of all the different things you’re feeling—either just in that particular moment, or about a given subject—and choose a color to represent each, making a key, as on a map. Then you fill a heart shape with each color, in proportion to how much of that feeling is present in you. It’s a simple exercise that can be quite profound for people of all ages. I used kid-friendly language to describe it.

As I said, she was plenty smart, but she just looked at me. “Is this too complicated?” I asked. Affirmative: “Can I just color the heart?” It was a golden opportunity to practice giving up my agenda. As a wise teacher once said in a workshop I took, “Just because it’s valuable, doesn’t mean it’s helpful.” While I watched, she colored the heart with a kind of fan pattern. She looked at it with pride a few moments. Then she drew an extra outline around the heart. Decorative, I thought.

Then she split the outline between blue on the left and purple on the right. She was wearing a “mood ring” she’d just gotten from a dentist’s office, and according to her reading of this ring, purple meant happy and blue meant sad. She wrote the words out adjacent to their territories.

Again, she surveyed her work. She took a red marker and started making arrows all around, pointing inward to the heart. “So no one misses it,” she explained. Next, with shallow breaths of childish concentration, she tried to recall the way a compass looks. North and South she put right where they belonged, but she accidentally swapped East and West.

Oh, well—I wasn’t about to correct her. The drawing of the arrows was the start of a narration, as she talked her way through what she was doing, four yellow directions drawn at the points of a cross. When her compass was done, she looked at me and announced, “We live in the sad part.”

“We do?” I was startled by the revelation, literally “out of the blue.” All I’d seen from her so far, by way of feelings, were the ugly looks she shot her dad and a premature attachment to me.

“Yes, sad,” she said with conviction.

“What makes us sad?” I began fishing for more. “Why are we so sad?”

“Because we live in the sad part.”

I tried again, from the opposite direction. “What could make us happier?”

She grabbed the red marker and made a box around West (aka, East), scribbling furiously to fill it in. “There,” she said.

“What’s that?” I was thinking Love.

“Angry,” she said firmly, as if she heard my thoughts.

“It’s angry. Why is it angry?” I was genuinely puzzled. Then she gave it to me, that glimpse:

“Because angry’s happier than sad.”

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Is it just me, or did this girl give voice to the world’s history of crossed signals and missed connections? When sad becomes angry in an effort to be happy, or at least “happier than sad,” East does indeed become West. And if the owner of the feelings doesn’t draw the compass—give the map its key—confusion reigns, and never the twain shall meet.

She wanted to hang the drawing on my art clothesline, and she chose the spot. Then she requested that I point it out to anyone else who came in, forever after. Writing this short essay is the best way I know how. I feel as though that experience now will never be far from my thoughts.

 

TELLTALE AND CELEBRATORY RED

 

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Luz, age 8, had come to counseling for help with intrusive thoughts of death and other worries. I could easily relate. I, too, used to feel anxious about things like lava, just because it could be found, glowing and deadly, somewhere in the world. Like me, Luz needed help feeling safe and strong where she was. Mindfulness to the rescue!

During our first visit, we practiced controlled deep breathing, which I assigned, with her permission, for bedtime homework: conscious breathing, plus sharing 3 Happy Things with whichever parent tucked her in. Asking her permission served more than one purpose. It established some buy-in, for starters; it also demonstrated, I hope, my respect for her autonomy and empowered her with the opportunity to say, “Yes, that’s okay with me.”

Luz made swift progress, according to her and her mom’s reports. In the office, her mischievous personality emerged and flashed in her smile and sly glances. Her symptoms of anxietyincluding tearfulness, difficulties concentrating at school, and somatic complaintsreceded. She seemed to be developing resilience and a feeling of efficacy; she even invented her own coping mechanism, which I hope to tell the story of, some other time.

Here’s the current cause for celebration: this week, Luz reported that she hadn’t had a single worry since our last meeting. Not one! Instead, her mother shared, she’s been petitioning to stay up later and pitching a fit or two when she can’t. For a parent, that might not seem like a triumph, but I was frankly thrilled to hear it; my little client was wanting another hour of fun in her day. (This is not an assumption, but what she expressed to me.)

I noticed Luz making a face as her fussing was related, however, and asked how she was feeling. “Embarrassed,” she said. She hadn’t wanted me to hear about it. When I asked if there was anything we might do that would help her feel less embarrassed, she suggested coloring. Luz loves making art.

As with asking permission, eliciting solutions from a child is a form of empowerment. My reward for thinking to do that was to sit with her as this figure emerged: long hair, brown skirt, black leggings, a cardigan, and then a telltale flash of red, which I had put on that morning to brighten the cloudy day and mood I was in. Luz was showing me how she saw me: smiling, happy. I told her, as I accepted her gift, that I must be smiling because Luz was standing just outside the picture, looking in at me.

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I first wrote about Luz here.

13 OF A’S SKILLS

In acknowledgment of the New Year, with its unknown challenges and joys, I would like to celebrate the intelligence and resilience of the eleven-year-old girl who was my first-ever client. Over the course of my internship at the elementary school I so loved, she and I would meet during her lunch hour, to sort through the pain in her heart. A natural storyteller, A. for a time needed a full lunch-and-recess on Monday just to talk through things, plus lunch period on Tuesday, when, having already expressed her last week’s store of thoughts, she was able to concentrate on learning and practicing skills. Although I had a set of mindfulness practices that I drew upon, I took my cues from her, and our work was a co-creation.

It was the best possible, richest beginning to this work for me, spending time with that bright girl whose life was shaken by the problems in her family; I left our meetings moved and brimming with hope for her tremendous capacity to recover and grow. Sitting under a picnic table in the fall, we had strikingly metaphysical conversations. Self-aware, she would say things like, “What happens now? I’m carrying so much. I’m carrying things for me, and for everyone else in my family.”

A veterinarian in the making, A. loved animals, but her heartbreak when one or another of the farm’s animals died was amplified by other losses she felt and continued to feel. We talked a lot about love and loss, what happens to love after deathdeath also symbolizing the other traumatic events of life. Like most of us, her model for dealing with pain was to escape or conquer it somehow. “I just don’t know what I have to do,” she said repeatedly during our second meeting.

Speaking slowly, I proposed that perhaps the “doing” might not be something that would happen on the outside. (Especially for a child, whose fate is largely in others’ hands, developing internal resources can make all the difference. Adults possess the advantage that developing within often leads to appropriate external changes as well; they are better positioned to bring “inside” and “outside” into accord.) “What if what you can do is something that happens on the inside?” It was a starting point at least, and a question that we worked on answering together.

Over time, A. practiced a number of skills with me and on her own. As part of our long and deliberate preparations for saying goodbye, toward the end of my time at the school, I asked A. to summarize her thoughts about each of her skills, how they worked and what made them count as such. As she spoke, I took notes, which I later typed up to put in a book that represented our year’s work. These are those notes, as they appear in her book, reproduced here with her and her father’s permission, granted on a last sunny day at the picnic table, in late spring.

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(13 of) A’S SKILLS

1. Ranking your day on a scale of 1 (terrible) to 5 (great)

This is helpful in measuring the stress you have to lose and the happiness you have to gain.

 2. Body scan

This helps you identify which parts of you are most stressed, like taking your temperature: red = stress, blue = happiness. EA: I would add that when you know where your stress is in your body, you can work on releasing it, with stretching, deep breathing, massage, and other techniques.

3. Using your senses

This is helpful as a way of not focusing on bad things, but instead paying attention to what can soothe and comfort you. It helps you see what there is in nature that can help. EA: I love these thoughts. Using your senses is also a way to enjoy and appreciate just being alive.

4. Talking to your bad dreams

This relieves stress! You know your dreams aren’t going to hurt you because you’re talking to them. It makes you braver because you stood up to something that terrified you. It builds your confidence. EA: It was pretty wonderful how you took care of the bad dream about the bear.

5. Setting goals

This is really good to do. A lot of goals can help your future. It’s especially good to do when you’re stressed because it helps break things down into smaller parts that you can more easily manage. EA: You are an expert goal-setter, A.

6. Breathing deeply

It helps you just to concentrate on your breathing. After you take deep breaths, it’s easier to organize your thoughts. Breathing deeply makes you peaceful and satisfies you. EA: I really should have made this #1. I hope you’ll always remember the benefits of this!

7. Saying what’s true for you

Doing this helps keep things on topic. The person you’re talking to may see things differently. Saying what’s true for you can help you talk and solve problems; not saying the truth, on the other hand, can get you off track and might make things worse. EA: 100 percent, yes!

8. Mindful eating

Basically, this is a lot like breathing deeply. It helps you concentrate: on the texture, on the combination of flavors. You never know what flavor might come next. What it’s like to eat something can be different from person to person because they have different taste buds.

9. Imagining the invisible backpack

This helps you figure out what you’re struggling to get rid of, what stress you don’t need, what you can use or transform. It helps you balance your stress. Packing well helps keep you on your path. You can imagine you’re climbing a mountain. You need to pack your courage to go on; courage needs to be in your backpack to help you past the scary caves (nightmares) and pointy rocks (like losing an animal you love). When you get to the top of the mountain, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all your stress is gone, but you know you can control it.

10. Keeping a journal

Every time you write a word, a death-rock from the stress mountain is removed. It really helps, explaining yourself through paper. EA: Even if you don’t have time to write a lot, you can use a journal to write down your gratitudes (#13). It’s a nice way to begin and/or end a day.

11. Meditating

This lets you balance your stress with positive things. You rest your whole body. It’s a lot about focusing, same as with the deep breathing, where you just think of that one thing. EA: And as with most good habits, the benefits continue to grow and flower over time, like a beautiful tree.

12. Drawing the ecomap*

When you draw an ecomap, you show yourself. In your head, the picture isn’t so clear. Putting it on paper helps to show what could be causing (or helping) the stress, and where you can go when it’s happening. You go to the people or things that are higher (closer to you) on your map.

13. “The three gratitudes”

This helps you to remember what you’re thankful for and what makes your life special. When you know what’s important to you, you also know the things that can help you. Maybe not with a big emergency, but with your stress on a bad day. EA: See #10! I would also add that being someone who practices gratitude can indeed help in times of emergency.

 

*An ecomap can be defined and depicted in several ways, but is essentially a visual representation of the constellation of people, pets, hobbies, etc., that constitute our significant others, whether at a given moment in time or more enduringly.